Facebook Games: The success of casual and the Big French Three

Jun 14, 2012
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In France, the more ambition a social game has, the smaller its audience seems to be. At least for the 3 biggest ones. France has 3 social game developers with an audience above 500K daily active users(DAU): Telaxo, Kobojo, and Ubisoft. In this list, world-renown Ubisoft is only 3rd (520k), while little-known Telaxo is 1st (1.2M), with somewhat known Kobojo bang in the middle (870k).

Never heard of Telaxo?

They mostly fly under the radar and publish many casual flash minigames (100+),  with very basic gameplay, art, and social features. Yet, they rack the most DAUs and MAUs(Monthly Active Users) of all French game publishers on Facebook. Despite minimalistic viral channels, in quantity and sophistication, their games are localized in an unusually large number of languages. This casual and niche approach has been working fine for them. However, monetization is their achilles’ heel with a low annual ARPU (Average Revenue Per User), typical of ad-based models, and in the region of .05 to .1€ annually.

Telaxo’s CEO has declared he saw a future in real-time multiplayer games on Facebook, still on the casual side of things with minifoot. He has also indicated that his company was experimenting with a social goods business model, which would constitute a departure from their past ad-based model and its low ARPU. What’s sure is that for growth and improved monetization, Telaxo needs to catch up quickly to what other casual social games publishers (hello king.com) are doing. This imperative likely means hiring additional talent and raising some serious funding. The ball is already rolling, with Telaxo moving into larger offices in April, and CEO Matthieu Collas acknowledging the growth opportunities ahead, in particular with premium casual social games. For now however, Telaxo is continuing with its casual and niche strategy to grow its audience and business

On the other end of the spectrum – Ubisoft.

A producer of AAA games, Ubisoft currently has most success with the Smurfs social, while enjoying some success with CSI and House MD as well. Ubisoft leverages these great global brands in order to boost the popularity of its games, and it seems to be working fine. But there again, fine isn’t great, and while the theme-ing, story, and polish of House MD and CSI in particular are way above the fray, they suffer from a fairly bland gameplay. This results in half-successes: such franchises could be way bigger hits.

This, however is really what sets Ubisoft apart: its games are made with the ambition to be huge hits. This strategy of maximum risk for maximum reward is the polar opposite of what Telaxo is doing. It must be sometimes puzzling for people at Ubisoft that with their resources, expertise, and desire to produce global hits, their games can still fall way behind these of a small startup from their very own country. But if the key isn’t the means or the quality of the game, maybe it has to do with the way people play on Facebook, and the bias that seems to have conducted many large game publishers to either buy their way into the market or stay on the sidelines: Facebook gamers might just stick more to casual than expected.

Let’s look at what Kobojo, the publisher in the middle, is doing.

With games such as Pyramidville and Atlantis Fantasy, Kobojo shows a clear strategy towards premium games, though it climbed to success with the GooBox minigames. Nowadays, Kobojo competes with the like of Zynga, to the point of getting sued for its use of “Ville”. If casual no longer seems to be the focus, Kobojo has shown a strong interest for niche audiences, so much so that its leading game is the version of PyramidVille localized in Arabic, which accounts for more than half its total DAUs. When ex-EA Gerhard Florin was hired in April 2011 as the president of its board, he declared that Kobojo had the potential to be the leader in social gaming in Europe through a localized strategy.

The job listings on Kobojo’s website indicate that this niche strategy is very much alive, with an eye beyond Europe towards Latin America and the Middle-East. However, there are plenty of worthy competitors in the EU, be it Wooga (Berlin), King.com (London), or Rovio (Helsinki), who are scoring big with users worldwide, in addition to the big US players having woken up to the interest of localizing their games early. Interestingly enough, these top EU publishers produce premium casual games.

Developing more complex games have yielded average results in the past year for Kobojo or Ubisoft, no matter their intrinsic qualities, while simple casual games have made Telaxo the French publisher with the largest audience. Looking at the EU developers and publishers that got the most traction globally, one thing remains true across the board: their top games are short and casual. This recipe for success could very well explain why, out of the 3 big French publishers, the most casual gets the most audience, no matter how their games compare on social integration or production value.